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Childbed Fever

A Nineteenth-Century Mystery


Christa Colyer
Department of Chemistry
Wake Forest University


This case describes the pioneering work of Ignaz Semmelweis and his efforts to remedy the problem of childbed fever in mid-19th century Europe.  Its purpose is to teach students about the scientific method by "dissecting" the various steps involved in this important, historical medical breakthrough. The case is an interrupted case, that is, students receive only one piece of information at a time, followed by discussion, before moving on to the next piece of information to solve the mystery.


  • To be able to define a problem or a question given a set of observations.
  • To be able to formulate an “explanatory story,” or hypothesis, in order to solve the problem at hand.
  • To be able to design a suitable experiment in order to evaluate the validity of the proposed hypothesis.
  • To be able to draw logical conclusions based on experimental results.
  • To understand the importance of the dissemination of scientific information and of establishing credibility within the scientific community.
  • To learn about the importance of observation when conducting scientific experiments, and to encourage observations beyond those expected or anticipated.


Childbed fever; puerperal sepsis; infectious disease; hand washing; experimental design; hypothesis testing; Ignaz Semmelweis

Topical Areas

History of science, Scientific method

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods




Subject Headings

Science (General)  |   Biology (General)  |   Epidemiology  |   Public Health  |   Medicine (General)  |  

Date Posted


Teaching Notes

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Answer Key

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Bruce A. Fall
Biology Program
University of Minnesota
Minneaplois, MN
On two occasions I have used this case within the first class of a large introductory biology course for non-majors. I use a somewhat abbreviated version (I project the narrative and questions from Part I, then II, and then III), and it takes about 25 minutes to complete. As intended, the case serves as an introduction to the scientific process, as well as one of the first group activities that students do. It is very effective. Turning students loose in small groups (consisting of their immediate neighbors) on the study questions of Part I results in instantaneous “buzz,” and the hypotheses generated are typically thoughtful and reasonable. I suspect my enthusiasm for this case is shared by many others—kudos to the author.

Susan Choi
Department of Chemistry
Camden County College
Blackwood, NJ
I used this case study the first day of class for my sections of non-science majors (20 students per section). The case study was very popular and the students enjoyed being "detectives" along with Semmelweis. It was a great way to introduce the scientific method. The study generated a lively discussion and great student participation. It also set the tone for the semester: encouraging class participation, fostering critical thinking, and promoting group discussion. The level of the material was appropriate for an introductory course. The case study/discussion proceeded very smoothly. The time estimates in the teaching notes were accurate.

In each of my classes, one or two students immediately suggested that washing hands might be important or that germs were being spread. This can be handled by asking what evidence makes that seem important (early in the case study there is none), or by pointing out that Semmelweis and the other doctors did not know about germs.

Janice Carpenter
McGee Middle School
Berlin, CT
I used this case with 100 students in 5 sections of an 8th grade science class. I rewrote this case study to use as a clicker case. When rewriting, I defined words typically unfamiliar to eighth grade in parenthesis, included language art integration (per school wide initiative) questions, and included pictures, maps, diagrams and a video clip to help eighth grade students’ understanding. The case was a big hit and helped to review the scientific method. Thank you to the authors for producing a thoughtful case that created much discussion.